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Mass Effect 2 is one chapter in a greater story. This is both its biggest strength and its greatest weakness: middle-act syndrome. However, although less fleshed out than the original, it manages to display atmosphere, character and its clever implementation of choices to create an immensely enticing role to play.
There were several points in Mass Effect that required an important decision. Some were small, such as how to deal with a street preacher, or break into a corporate office. Many were far weightier, often involving life-or-death consequences. There's a choice of which team member to save at one point, as well as an argument that potentially leads to the death of another.
These decisions were unsettling in Mass Effect, but in Mass Effect 2 they are given additional resonance. By underlining the nature of consequence the whole Mass Effect saga feels connected, coherent -- but perhaps more importantly my own.
As an RPG fanatic, I'll happily play games like Mass Effect several times over. I'll pick different choices to see where they take me, use different weapons or different skills and classes so that I can try everything.
With Mass Effect however, I have one play through that's more important than the others, one that's mine. This is Tom Shepard. He's a Sentinel, which means he has both biotic and technical abilities. He's a Paragon, but not a do-gooder. He always tries to do the right thing, but isn't nice to everyone just for the sake of being nice. He chose to save the Citadel Council, when he could instead have given humanity a boost up the Galactic ladder by letting them die. While, as a human, he knows what his species is capable of, he also knows that we need to learn our place: the species' on the council are older and wiser than us.
Mass Effect 2 takes the mature decision to jettison this.
By placing such emphasis on morality and choices, Mass Effect is a more emotional experience. Whereas RPG's typically involve huge amounts of statistical customisation to make characters unique (including, to an extent, the first Mass Effect game), Mass Effect 2 takes the mature decision to jettison this.
There are now just half a dozen skills for each class, with just a few upgrades. The system has come under criticism for watering down RPG traditions, and for selling out to action game fans who don't have the patience for such things.
But this is nonsense. The new system merely focuses on what's important in an RPG: playing a role. The player interaction with the game is now far more immediate. Itís just you and the choices you've made. Fulfilling and devastating.
This focus on role makes Mass Effect 2 feels fleshed out. The opening scenes are among the most gut-wrenchingly intense I've seen in a game and this continues when familiar characters make a return. Meeting characters from the first game is like reuniting with old friends: they're the same as ever, but somehow a little different.
Reflecting on feeling friendship with a digital character is strange.
Reflecting on feeling friendship with a digital character is strange, but I was so involved in the role I was playing that friendship best describes my response. The game had an emotional as well as mental quality to it, and because my Shepard is just an extension of me, it was completely natural.
Through all this is the simple character-driven story about one man (or woman) making a deal with the devil, and persuading a group of people to follow him into hell. The game is clearly all about the fellowship Shepard gathers: each character is an individual, fully formed personality.
Sure, sci-fi stereotypes and tropes abound, but the characters break free of such bonds rather than rely on them. Absent fathers, abandoned children, scientific abuse and ill-advised experimentation are just a few of the headlines here.
Throughout the game you are encouraged to get to know each character: cleverly, it's not possible to keep everyone happy. In my efforts to keep both Miranda and Jack happy, I unwittingly led them on: this caused a catastrophic argument, one for which Miranda never forgave me for. Because of this rift in the group, Miranda did not survive the final mission. It's consequence in action.
I ended up caring about these people far more than I expected.
The role Mass Effect invites us to play makes it one of my defining videogame experiences. It is both excitingly new and reassuringly familiar, but perhaps most important of all it feels alive. I'm not embarrassed to say I ended up caring about these people, this world and its future far more than I expected was possible for a videogame.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: