Mass Effect 2

Recently, a fine line has been drawn between video games and films. As more games incorporate film-style cut scenes and epic story lines, the line grows ever slimmer. Never was this more apparent than in “Mass Effect 2.”

“Mass Effect 2,” the aptly named sequel to “Mass Effect” is a science fiction game in which you play Commander Shepard, the hero of the human race. The game begins as Shepard’s ship, the Normandy, is destroyed and in a thrilling action sequence. Shepard dies while saving his crew.

Of course, that would make for a short game. After a fairly detailed character creation setup, you find that Shepard has been brought back to life by an organization known as Cerberus. This organization is run by a man known only as the “illusive man” (voiced by Martin Sheen). Human colonies have been raided and their inhabitants taken by Collectors – and Cerberus believes the only person who can find out what is going on is Shepard. Through countless battles and sub-missions, you must assemble a team to take on this evil alien race.

I should state that I never played the first game – but if that lessened my experience in any way, it certainly wasn’t in a way I could tell. Characters clearly from the first game make both minor and major appearances, but never in a way that required much, if any, past knowledge. If you want to know more, you often have the choice to play Shepard as if he has forgotten his past and the NPC’s will fill you in. As far as the story goes, everything flows seamlessly and stays intriguing from beginning to end.

Like another recent game, “Fallout 3,” “Mass Effect 2” has a semi-non-linear story line. There is one main story (that of the Collectors) that is the ultimate goal. It doesn’t make for the longest game play in the world and could probably be completed in a few sittings, but it’s satisfying – particularly during the end battle segment. That’s not to say that “Mass Effect 2” is a short game – in essence it’s as long as you want to make it. The side missions are massive (and likely will allow for some interesting downloadable content) –  so much so, that the Xbox version needs two discs to hold everything. Given that I only had to switch discs twice in my entire first play through, it isn’t as big as hassle as it sounds. It seems that the main story line is mostly on disc 1 and the side quests are on disc 2 – though to minimize switching there is some overlap. These side quests often have an outcome on the main story line, and those effects can be seen both in little changes in dialogue and more major plot points.

A lot of “Mass Effect 2” requires you to walk around and talk to people. Thankfully, the graphics are amazing enough to support talking heads, and the voice acting in this game is, for the most part, top notch. On top of Martin Sheen, some notable names were brought in, such as Tricia Helfer of “Battlestar Galactica” fame and Carrie-Anne Moss (“The Matrix”). Mark Meer brings back his role as Commander Shepard and he does so quite well. Most impressively, the interactive conversations all seem to flow naturally – and dialogue options appear before the last person finishes speaking, so that as long as you are paying attention, it actually feels like a real conversation is taking place.

Of course, a game that is all talking would be boring. There are some mini-games and puzzles that need solving, but the core action of Mass Effect 2 comes during battles – which are typically excellent. Aside from some special missions, you command a team of yourself and two allies into battle. You have full control over Shepard and have a mix of powers or weapons depending on what type of character you created. You can issue real time commands to your companions or freeze the game to give yourself more time to think. Rather than being a straightforward third person shooter, a lot of the battles require strategy, such as finding safe areas and opening fire while an enemy reloads. Battles can often be exciting and, on the normal setting, felt just about right, difficulty wise. Every now and then my character would die, but it was rare that I wouldn’t be able to correct my mistake on the next pass.

One other thing I should note is that most battle missions can be completed in a reasonable time (within an hour). That makes for an easy stopping and starting point – leaving each individual session with a sense of completion. It’s not a big deal, since you can save at almost any time, but it’s nice and helps with the game’s flow.

However, in a game this massive, there are going to be issues. While “Mass Effect 2” does minimize these problems, there are some, at least in the Xbox version, that are a detriment to the game. At least three times during the game, my character became “stuck” in a location, and the only way I could free him was by restarting from my last save. Once I even had an issue where my camera froze and I couldn’t direct my character anymore – that was fixed by saving and restarting. Also, during some conversations there were a number of image glitches. Items in people’s hands would appear and disappear. Sometimes characters would even flash in and out of view.

Aside from those bugs, there were also some design issues. You cannot skip cut scenes your first time through a mission, which is understandable. While you can skip them if you choose to replay a mission, if you die after watching a cut scene and hadn’t saved, you cannot skip it that second time through. More often than not, the game would auto save after long cut scenes, but when it didn’t I found myself re-watching scenes multiple times. Given that some of those scenes were long, this is unacceptable. Also, load times, even within cut scenes, can be long on the Xbox version. Not only does this make for some poor pauses in the action, but also it can make game play tiresome. Especially when you’re roaming the four decks of your ship and it can take 15 seconds to load between each deck. There is a sense of realism instilled with moving up and down an elevator during that loading, but after the fiftieth time, it gets a little old. This might be a little better on a high-powered PC, but other that that, it’s slow.

None of these issues severely hurt this game, though. For the most part, the bugs are few and far between and the game flows smoothly. As the story unfolds, the actions really heats up and you’ll find yourself wanting to come back for more. There are so many choices to make that, while all plays through the game will be similar, they will never be identical (for example you can make your way through the game as an honorable hero, or be more of a jerk – each has people reacting to you in different ways). As I finished my first play through, I found myself wanting to play again in order to try new things and perhaps pursue new relationships with characters (yes, love affairs do occur).

On a side note, a lot of the language of “Mass Effect 2,” as well as a lot of the situations, are more adult in nature. While there is no nudity, there is a lot of foul language and suggested sexual material. It’s not suitable for the younger gamers, but nothing in the game feels out of place for the story. I guess it was a good thing that Target instituted a policy where they have to card people buying the game – even if it felt absurd getting carded for a video game in my thirties.

“Mass Effect 2” may not be the greatest game ever made. It may not even be the most epic, but it certainly gives other games a run for their money. It looks incredible, sounds great, and is fun to play. Most of all, “Mass Effect 2” proves that there doesn’t have to be a blurry line between games and film. If done correctly, they can be integrated as one, creating a completely enthralling interactive experience.

FuzzyGeek

FuzzyGeek is considered hairy and dangerous. He is wanted by various government agencies, including animal control. If you see him, approach with caution or else you may swallow a furball.

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