Publisher: Electronic Arts
System requirements: Windows XP SP3/Vista SP1/Win 7, 1.8 GHz Intel Core2Duo or equivalent CPU, 1 GB RAM for Win XP/2GB for Vista or Win 7, 256 MB graphics card with Pixel Shader 3.0 support, DirectX 9.0c-compatible sound card, 15 GB hard-drive space, DirectX 9.0c August 2008
Release date: Available now
In the gaming industry, much like in Hollywood, sequels to successful products have become just like death and taxes: unavoidable. Many times, publishers and producers decide to crank out a new installment and make a quick buck or two, not worrying too much about quality because they know the fans will buy whatever they’re offered. But every now and then, a sequel pops up that throws out the bad from the first game, while keeping and improving upon the good. One such sequel is EA and BioWare’s Mass Effect 2, the second in a planned trilogy of space-faring RPGs that tells the galaxy-emcompassing tale of a valiant ship commander and his diverse crew battling an unknown force that threatens universal destruction.
One month after the events of 2007′s Mass Effect, Alliance Cmdr. Shepard and the crew of the Normandy are searching for enemy ships when they are attacked by an enormous unknown vessel. Two years later, Shepard wakes up aboard a space station owned by Cerberus, a terra-centric military organization run by a mysterious figure known only as The Illusive Man (smoothly and effectively voiced by actor Martin Sheen). After Shepard helps Cerberus operatives Miranda Lawson and Jacob Taylor escape the station, The Illusive Man charges Shepard with finding and recruiting a team of specialists and soldiers to mount what could be a suicide mission against an ancient race called the Collectors, who have been attacking human outposts and kidnapping their inhabitants, perhaps in preparation for a devastating invasion.
You begin ME 2 with a nifty bit of innovation. Gamers who’ve played the original game and still have it on their hard drives can import their Shepard from ME into the new game and pick up right where they left off, with all of his or her statistics and moral standing intact. Once your character is ported, you can choose to alter Shepard’s appearance, and you are asked to select one of six classes. Those who did not play ME start with a brand-new Shepard. You navigate the stars using the galaxy map; just click on a destination and you’re off. Each star cluster contains several solar systems, each with planets and other objects for you to explore and exploit for natural resources, which you collect and use to complete scientific research projects that upgrade your weapons, your armor and the Normandy itself. Scanning the planets for minerals also reveals side missions that you can choose to accept or ignore. When going planetside, you choose two members of your crew to accompany you on the mission; by the time you are ready to make the final assault on the Collectors, you can have up to 11 members of your team from which to choose. Each crewmember has their own set of weapons and abilities. You can let them fight on their own, or you can trigger an interface that allows you to target individual enemies and command each ally to use the ability of your choice on the specified target.
Some of the best parts of ME have been brought over to ME 2. The game is visually stunning, incorporating colorful vistas, space stations teeming with all sorts of people and creatures, and astronomical artwork unsurpassed in video games on any platform. Once again, the writers have contributed astonishing depth to the game world; each of the dozens of planets that you can visit has a detailed description, and the Codex (a sort of Encyclopedia Galactica) has in-depth information about all of the game’s races, vehicles, technology, etc. The first game’s cinematic approach to storytelling also returns, featuring active point-of-view editing and camera movements during conversations. Also, teammate AI is excellent; your squad members fight very effectively on their own without any needed intervention from you. Meanwhile, other things have been improved since ME. Inventory management has been streamlined; gone are the massive lists of items that can be assigned to each team member, no more converting unwanted items to medi-gel. Weapons are only made available to the characters who are permitted to use them; you assign loadouts to your away team at the beginning of each mission. The tedious planetary joyrides in the Mako landing craft have been eliminated in favor of a shuttle that drops you off on the planets and picks you up automatically when the missions are completed. And your available missions have been added to the galaxy map as part of the flags identifying each star cluster, making it easier to plan your progress through the story. Also, once the final battle is won and the credits roll, you have the choice of continuing with your current game to finish outstanding quests and explore relationships with crewmembers, or starting a new playthrough with your Shepard retaining all of the abilities and statistics from the first time.
But there are some cracks in ME 2‘s considerable armor. Importing your Shepard from ME is not as simple as it should be; you have to know precisely where your saved games are stored on your hard drive, since the software doesn’t know how to find them for you. If you decide to change any key bindings, the new key assignments don’t carry over to the tool tips and help messages that appear in the game. You can’t zoom or otherwise manipulate the galaxy map other than scrolling it up-down or side to side, which is a problem because the destination flags can sometimes obscure possible navigation targets. Guiding a tiny Normandy between solar systems and from planet to planet on the map looks a bit cheesy. While wearing battle armor, Shepard always wears his helmet unless you eliminate it from an option menu only accessible from the commander’s quarters on the Normandy, and he continues to wear it in all of the cutscenes; several times Shepard can be seen drinking and even kissing with his helmet still on his head (perhaps channeling Halo‘s Master Chief?). But the biggest drag in an already massive game is the resource-gathering mechanic. Once you arrive at a planet and activate your scanner, you have to physically move a target across the surface and watch for spikes on a graph displayed next to the planet. When the graph spikes, you fire a probe at that spot, which transfers the minerals you find to your inventory. You start out with a maximum of 15 probes; when you run low, you have to break orbit, find a refueling station and use credits to buy more probes. Of course, you’re not required to strip mine every planet in the galaxy, but if you don’t at least scan each one you risk missing side missions and you will not have the resources necessary to make upgrades to your squad and your ship that will help you survive the final battle. But scanning and mining all of the planets can take a very long time (some players have reported taking almost 24 hours just to gather minerals). This can either be seen as even more depth or an artificial way to lengthen an already epic game, depending upon your point of view.
My first playthrough of Mass Effect 2 clocked in at approximately 48 hours. That’s almost twice as long as Richard Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle of operas. That’s two full seasons of “Lost.” But, aside from the resource-gathering tedium, it was worth every moment of it. BioWare has made welcome refinements to the gameplay of Mass Effect, added a huge cast of wildly varied characters (voiced by some of the best voice actors in the business who aren’t named Nolan North), and topped it all off with one of the most thrilling and memorable closing battle sequences that you’ll find in a video game. The concluding chapter in the series can’t arrive fast enough.