Bioware has been long established as the king of RPG developers, with a back catalogue containing more genuine classics than a teenager has blackheads. While recent hit Dragon Age is a return to more traditional fantasy fare, titles such as Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect have enticed a whole new legion of fans to the genre with their deep and suspenseful plots and colourful characters, and not an ogre in sight.
Although the first Mass Effect was released to rave reviews, the gameplay wasn't quite as perfect as some critics made out. Long, tedious vehicle sections marred the overall experience like a sprinkling of mouse turds on a delicious cheesecake, while the real-time combat couldn't quite match that of other third-person shooters such as Gears of War. Thankfully, Bioware has taken note of these complaints and the sequel, rather originally titled Mass Effect 2, is everything the first game could and should have been.
We catch up with Commander Shepherd not long after his last adventure. He's still searching the stars for the last dregs of the Geth when his ship, the Normandy, comes under attack from an unknown enemy. You take control as the ship breaks apart, in an opening much more dramatic than the first game's. Without giving too much of the plot away, Shepherd soon joins a rogue group headed by President Bartlet himself, Martin Sheen, and is tasked with recruiting a brand new team to take on this deadly threat.
Players who completed the first Mass Effect can continue with their original character by importing an old save game, but the only real continuity involves some major plot points. All experience and powers from the first game are sadly lost thanks to that dramatic intro. While this ultimately makes sense from a challenge viewpoint, it also bites the big one that you can't whip enemies around and explode them into meaty chunks right from the start.
Mass Effect 2 doesn't set out to be radically different from the first, and rightly so. Instead, almost every weakness in the original has been eliminated and the overall gameplay tweaked, and the end result is a highly enjoyable and immersive experience that will have you craving just one more hour of play at 4am. No longer are you forced to drive across massive barren planets in search of a crashed probe or a chunk of rock. The focus is a lot tighter, as is the pace - you'll be so caught up in the story that you won't need to wonder, ‘why the hell am I messing around scanning for plutonium deposits when the entire universe is in danger?'
One of the greatest improvements and one that's immediately apparent is the updated combat sections. Part of this is down to control. For instance, the cover system is now a lot more effective, with a button press sending Shepherd scuttling to the nearest safe spot. Aiming is a breeze, allowing you to easily target specific limbs or go for a powerfully effective headshot, while the guns themselves feel more gutsy and real than the artificial efforts of the first Mass Effect.
Some of the other combat changes will be seen as either a blessing or a curse depending on your own personal preferences. Weapons no longer overheat, so you can blast away as merrily as you like - until you run out of ammo, at least. Limiting each gun with an ammo count does mean that you can run out mid-battle and be forced to switch to a less effective weapon, but at least this makes firefights more tactical. Players are a lot less likely to blast away blindly and might actually take aim at their opponents.
More controversially, Bioware has shied away from the looting of the first game. In Mass Effect 2, new gun types or kit upgrades can be found scattered around the various worlds, but you won't be hording hundreds of weapons and comparing stats to work out which is the best, then changing on the fly. Looters are liable to be disappointed at this change, but it really does help with pace. No longer will you have to stop and reduce armfuls of guns to omni-gel in the middle of a mission, or spend precious gaming time sorting through an entire armoury to find the one half-decent weapon.
Team controls have also been blessed with a re-tuning and are all the better for it. You can now order your two companions to take up position with a simple key press, and can even take advantage of their bionic powers by adding them to your own hotkeys. As with the first Mass Effect, it's perfectly possible to complete the game without ordering your team-mates around, thanks to the excellent AI. Your companions will take cover when fired on, flank your enemies, and even duck away from your aim when you draw your weapon. However, issuing commands in the heat of battle is a lot easier now and will certainly help with some of the tougher fights. One of your buddies been whining about your lack of morality? Simply send them out as bait during a boss fight, and watch them get tanked on as you circle around for a sneaky shot from behind.
Speaking of morality, the missions in Mass Effect 2 are even more varied than the first game's and give you greater freedom in how you approach them. For instance, early on you're tasked with liberating a factory from a violent gang who've taken it over and made slaves of the workers. Unfortunately Shepherd and his crew are about as subtle in their infiltration as the Third Reich, and the whole building is soon on fire and exploding a bit. At this point you can choose to either rescue the workers (the ‘paragon' route) or track down and kill the gang leader (the ‘renegade' route). Having a choice makes the missions a lot more fun, and adds obvious replayability. These moral choices have even seeped into cutscenes, with occasional quicktime events allowing you to perform a heroic or dastardly action, although it's easy to miss or accidentally select one of these options.
Several other gameplay elements have been tweaked for Mass Effect 2, such as the space segments. Scanning planets for minerals is now a more interactive experience, in which you have to manually scan the surface while monitoring a seismograph-style readout (anyone who enjoys trawling beaches with a metal detector can rejoice). Even travelling between planets now takes some thought, as the Normandy has a limited fuel supply which must be refreshed at scattered depots. The scanning and refuelling gets a little tiresome after a while, but at least you can actually use the deposits you find to research and upgrade your equipment, providing an incentive for exploring.
Despite being out for only a matter of days, Mass Effect 2 has already been bolstered by two chunks of DLC, with more promised in the coming months. The first download pack, ‘Normandy Crash Site', allows you to explore the ruins of the first ship and recover the dog tags of fallen comrades. Sadly this is little more than a simple search quest and is quite short and dull, while adding absolutely nothing to the overall experience. The second pack, ‘Zaeed: The Price of Revenge', thankfully offers a lot more, in the form of a cool new recruitable character (the titular Zaeed, a typically grizzled and pissed-off war veteran) and an accompanying side-mission.
Players must pay to download all DLC, but at least the process is simple. Sign up to the online ‘Cerberus' network and purchase a serial code, which you can use to download and install the packs direct from the Bioware website. The DLC is then seamlessly integrated into the game.
While we hate using tired old clichés here at Game Debate, it's a sure thing that Mass Effect 2 will be topping ‘Game Of 2010' lists come Christmas, even though the year's just begun. The hugely enjoyable original has been overhauled and improved in some key areas and the result is one of the most addictive and enthralling gaming experiences of recent memory. Providing your rig meets the generous system requirements - a Core 2 Duo 2.66GHz or equivalent with 2GB memory and a worthy GPU - you should pick up a copy as soon as possible, along with a crate of beer and a healthy supply of frozen pizza. With all that in place, you'll have no reason to go outside for quite some time.