Xbox 360 Review

Mass Effect 2

Shepard's back, in full Effect

Sequels seldom come as big and feverishly anticipated as Mass Effect 2, BioWare's first franchise sequel since Baldur's Gate II ten years ago. And although the first Mass Effect was an astonishing feat, there were certain aspects that were slightly limited in their technical execution. Yet despite its few shortcomings, Mass Effect's memorable characters and narrative far exceeded any limitations to make it one of Xbox 360's most highly regarded titles.

One of the finest sci-fi RPGs around, Mass Effect married cutting edge graphics to a deeply immersive story set amid one of the richest universes imaginable. And while Mass Effect 1 proved to be an unreservedly absorbing game and a remarkable achievement in its own right, the overall product was never quite as polished as it could have been with certain elements that proved to detract somewhat from the core experience.

What few niggling issues plagued Mass Effect 1 have either been polished to a brilliant shine or removed entirely for Mass Effect 2. Driving aimlessly around barren planet surfaces in the Mako on the lookout for mineral reserves has been ditched in favour of a new mining mini-game, enabling you to sit comfortably aboard the Normandy while using the ship's sophisticated scanning system.

Detecting pockets of minerals within each planet, retrieved via a probe, grants valuable raw materials that can be used to upgrade your ship, your armour, your biotics and your weaponry. While the mining of planets can be a dull, often tedious but necessary part of the game, you can mine for a few seconds or minutes if you like, which beats driving around for hours in the Mako, getting stuck between treacherous rock formations.

Mass Effect 2's most significant tweaks have been made to the combat mechanics, which have been given a substantial revamp making cover, movement and aiming more responsive than before. Moving further away from BioWare's RPG roots, combat in ME2 is far closer to replicating the action of any number of third-person shooters, allowing you to fluidly strafe, roadie run and slide into or vault over cover with ease.

Being able to use weapons isn't limited by class or competence any more either, so an inexperienced player won't be subjected to a swaying cross-hair due to a lack of in-game weapon proficiency. Upgrades for weaponry and armour are usually salvaged or purchased during exploration, which is far more preferable to having to painstakingly accumulate both skill points and weapon components.

Mass Effect 2's greatest strength doesn't necessarily lie in the overhauled combat system, but in its absorbing narrative and cast of colourful characters. Old faces return among the new menagerie of wayward souls that you'll need to recruit to your cause. Beginning where Mass Effect 1 left off on the Normandy, Shepard eventually finds himself stuck in a moral quandary, forced to work for the mysterious Cerberus organisation, whose role in ME2's galaxy is questionable.

Putting together your merry band of mercs and mentalists provides the crux of the narrative, taking you to all corners of the galaxy to meet a troubled biotic convict, a deeply introspective but deadly Drell assassin, a ruthless gun for hire, a powerful Asari Justicar, a mighty Krogan and a few surprise characters that we won't reveal here. Just know that every character you persuade to join your team is a potentially dangerous and volatile customer - perfect for a perilous suicide mission.

Given the nature of Mass Effect 2's story therefore, it's not particularly surprising to discover that this newly revamped combat system takes centre stage, moving the game further away from definition as an RPG. Customisation options have been scaled back for both Shepard and his crew, with interchangeable armour ditched in favour of allowing you to piece together your own bespoke look using a combination of different helmets, chest plates, grieves, gauntlets, colours and textures.

Mass Effect 2 is a much more streamlined beast than its predecessor, stripping away many of ME1's layers of flab, leaving behind a robust and muscular combat system. Great cover shooting action doesn't count for much without a good narrative to flesh out the experience though, which is where Mass Effect 2 really manages to rope you in, with a selection of well-written, superbly voiced dialogue options for you to choose from.

Every person's experience of Mass Effect 2's story will vary depending upon a range of factors, such as whether you played the first game or not. A completed ME1 game save can be transferred into ME2, so you can continue with the same Shepard - switching classes if you like - as he or she assembles a crack team of interstellar reprobates and pariahs to aid him (or her) in a mission to prevent a new threat from destroying mankind.

Making decisions that impact upon your journey through the storyline will have consequences that will transfer to Mass Effect 3, so how you get to ME2's climax is up to you but be sure to choose carefully. Whether you choose to adopt the path of an uncompromising renegade or heroic paragon, or even a schizophrenic mix of the two is up to you, but you'll need to think ahead to ensure you make the right decisions for your character.

There are plenty of opportunities to commit selfless or violent deeds, which now occasionally pop up as prompts on the right and left triggers, allowing you to interrupt an exchange of dialogue with an impromptu action, like comforting a grieving woman or punching her square in the face (seriously).

Each member of your crew has a specialisation and set of powers that can be levelled up and evolved into even more effective abilities following successful completion of quests. Pulling off combinations of biotic skills works in much the same way as it did in Mass Effect 1, with the same radial menu on Xbox 360 and discreet selection bar on the PC. Accessing your selection of weapons and biotics pause the game, enabling you a valuable few seconds to plan a strategy before unleashing a barrage of inferno grenades, barrier warps, combat drones and shield overloads.

Enjoyable combat and compelling story is really only the tip of the Mass Effect 2 iceberg however. The way the game looks and makes you feel are key to what makes the game so unique. There are more than a few moments of sheer jaw dropping brilliance in Mass Effect 2, with visuals that blow away virtually anything we've yet seen on Xbox 360, without question. All that late texture loading and rendering from the first game has been completely eradicated, as has virtually any sign of glitches or bugs, bar incredibly rare instances of clipping that are barely worth even mentioning.

BioWare has taken great care in smoothing out the rough edges for Mass Effect 2, removing anything even remotely clumsy or superfluous from the original, leaving a lean action RPG that's almost completely impossible to fault. Sometimes you might get stuck while trying to stick to cover during a heated battle, only to die in an unrelenting blitzkrieg of laser fire, and sometimes you might accidentally nudge the dialogue wheel to an option you've already heard (which is frankly your own fault), but to pick holes in something so expertly crafted seems futile and churlish.

Mass Effect 2 is a work of unreserved genius that not only surpasses its predecessor in almost every conceivable department, but also deserves to be listed alongside the greatest science-fiction properties in any medium. The perfect blend of rich, lustrous visuals, an evocative soundtrack and pure gameplay quality make Mass Effect 2 without question one of the best games of this or any generation, and anyone who believes otherwise, is just plain wrong.

E3 Trailer