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Mass Effect 2 reviewed (Xbox 360)

Role-playing games have come a long way since The Legend of Zelda started the genre with its sword-slashing hero and revolutionary game mechanics. Games like Mass Effect and Fallout 3 fused first-person shooting with RPG elements -- deep storylines, morality meters, and free-range exploration -- creating an immersive video game experience that lets gamers take the lead, choosing paths and influencing the details of the story. Mass Effect 2 builds off its predecessor, and the result is 2010's first game of the year nominee. 


ME2 sets the stage for a partnership between Commander Shepard and human-first organization Cerberus. Players jumping into the ME universe for the first time might have to settle into the story which goes like this: All intelligent life in the universe is threatened by an ancient mechanical species known as the Reapers. Every 50,000 years, the Reapers awake to wipe the universe clean for newer species of life to grow. ME1 ended with Shepard defeating the rogue agent Saren while the various alien fleets fought off the Reaper Sovereign.


Starting ME2 up for the first time, players can opt to begin a fresh career or import one from a saved ME1 file. Importing sets up the game to follow the story decisions made in the first game and can also add extra credits, levels, and morality points. The opening sequence sets up a partnership between Shepard and Cerberus, a human-first organization with a shady reputation. Cerberus' leader, the Illusive Man, gives Shepard the means and information to investigate the disappearance of colonists in the outlying systems beyond Alliance jurisdiction.


The gameplay has been finetuned with cover-based mechanics similar to Gears of War. Pressing the A button near a wall or edge will place Shepard's back to it. Aiming and firing can be done from behind cover making combat less of a stand and shoot (and get shot at) affair. Shepard will have different weapons and special abilities, biotics, available to him depending on what class is chosen. The infiltrator class gives Shepard the ability to cloak and find a new position to snipe from. The soldier class specializes in weapons as opposed to biotics, while the vanguard class does the opposite. Leveling gives skill points which can be applied to make abilities stronger, laster-longing, and even greater in effect over an area. Maxing out an ability, for example incinerate, opens up a choice to make it a more focused blast or give it a greater splash when it hits a target, allowing it to spread to other enemies.


Shepard can map three abilities to the LB, RB and Y buttons. Targeting and shooting are done with the triggers. Allies are also easier to control thanks to a new ordering system. While weapons and biotics can be chosen manually by holding the LB or RB buttons, mapping a specific ability to the left or right position on the directional pad orders that ally to perform that task. Pressing up orders both of the allies to attack a specific target, and pressing down orders them to rally to Shepard's position. When no target is chosen, pressing either left or right orders the ally assigned to that button to approach that spot. It may sound complicated, but it makes the game much easier to play, and essentially gives the player more abilities to complement the class they're playing.


The rest of the game has been improved with an addition-by-subtraction philosophy. Equipping weapons and managing inventories has been replaced with newer research and weapons locker systems that take a lot of the guesswork out of building the best team for each mission. Characters are tailored for specific tasks, and those that are weapon-based can implement ammo types to shred organics, deflate shields, burn armor, or freeze enemies into place. Research schematics and weapons can be found or bought. Weapons can be interchanged at the beginning of missions or at lockers. 


Exploring the universe has also been reworked. Planets can be scanned from space to find elements used in research and development or anomalies which start missions. It's a significant change from the first game where players had to land on each planet and scour the surface in a vehicle. This approach gives players a chance to either sit back and search or get right to the action. 


Other things seem to be more complicated. The mini-map can be brought up by pressing and holding the RB button. That means, finding enemies requires a pause in gaming. Holding the RB button also points the player to the next objective which can also be done by pressing in the R or L stick. Using the sticks to point the way doesn't always work because it takes a little time to spot where Shepard is heading. Standing still for a little bit will get it working right.. Still, it's a useful tool because it prevents players from advancing the story when there are unexplored areas that could hold upgrades, credits, or ammo. 


Like the first game, Shepard's actions will affect how characters will react to him. Cutscene button presses have also been added. Pressing the left or right trigger when an icon pops up will commit Shepard to either a paragon or renegade action. In one scene, a mercenary begins work on a gunship that will be used to take out a recruit. Pressing the right trigger when the icon pops up cuts to Shepard performing a renegade action by electrocuting the merc. Shepard can also pursue a love interest by talking to certain characters in between missions. Players with an imported character can also choose to forgo pursuing a love interest by remaining faithful to their first love.


Overall, the game works because the player is in control of a deep game that aspires to be more than a flash in the pan experience. Some may choose to play the game by choosing only paragon paths, but they may be in for a surprise when their good intentions set them up for a tough situation. It makes players realize that the world of ME2 isn't black and white. It also gives the writers a chance to put players on the spot to make tough decisions. On one of the missions, Shepard can reason with one ally who's willing to murder. Players can either feed that anger or work for peace. It's subtle and thought-provoking. Being put in extraordinary situations can test a player's true character if they take the game seriously enough.


The third game in the series will also have an option to continue the story from an ME2 save. Knowing that the events in this game can influence the story in a subsequent one makes it all that much more engaging. Voice acting in ME2 is top notch, and the characters are so well written and deep that the last mission, a suicide mission that requires careful planning, will have some players grieving over allies who couldn't make it. It's revolutionary and blurs the line between video games and reality. When a player begins to weigh the consequences of an action towards an imaginary character onscreen, it's just another step towards building more realistic games.


Mass Effect 2

Developer: Bioware
Released for: Xbox 360, PC


Rating: 5 / 5

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